“Such a glorious and beautiful sight,” Lilith’s seductive voice cooed in Lucas’s ear as she appeared next to him just as quickly as she had disappeared earlier. It was the type of magical in-and-out maneuver that he would have expected from a cartoon superhero contacting a police officer with progress on his vigilante justice, not from a beautiful sadist who was anything but shy of displaying her bloody art. “It is a wonder to see your handiwork.”
Lucas, still wanting to shift the self-bragging opportunities into praise for others, immediately deflected the response. “It is not my handiwork, but the handiwork of those who have defended me that matters,” he responded loudly enough for any approaching to hear before he pivoted to the crowd. “The Holy Church, the sworn enemy of our Blood Goddess, has sent their best, their brightest, their most capable warriors, and what have you done in return?”
“Had a tub orgy?” an Alfar mage answered with a laugh. “That was what we were doing while they were sending their best and brightest to kill us.”
“Yeah, they wanted to stick it to us, but the boss beat them to it,” the Dwarf who had felled a horse earlier replied, and her raucous guffaws resounded across the field. “If they want to catch us with our pants down, they’re going to have to do it before the boss gets us out of them completely!”
Okay, I see what direction this is heading, Lucas thought with a sigh as the woman, whom he was certain was also a player, uttered the most lascivious and humorous reply she could muster. “Well,” Lucas said, putting on a broad grin and trying to lean into his persona, “if you all were wearing pants, then perhaps we wouldn’t have so many brutish men and unwelcome guests trying to break in.”
“Psh! Fat chance they’ll get through us.” The Dwarf woman sneered as she swung her axe at empty air. “Any booty call I hear better involve pirates, buried treasure, and a ship with a punny name like Tying Knots on the Naughty Lass.” The words “naughty lass” sounded enough like the famous fictional submarine that Lucas immediately caught her clever reference.
Lucas thought for a moment. He was about to give some rousing speech about Humanity, about justice and what was good for life, when he realized that wasn’t what was motivating the people in front of him. He needed to still keep up the appearance of who he was trying to be for the NPCs, the savior of the people and bane of the evil nobles, who were using them for their own gain and never giving them the justice they deserved. However, he also needed to cater to the players, the people who likely didn’t care at all about what was right or wrong in some video game, but were just in it for amusement.
“But that’s just it,” Lucas said. “You can handle them now when it’s just this small number, and I have faith in that, but what if their number grows larger? What if it is not just one church, but two? If one church could fell half of our ranks, will we withstand them if two more show up? If three? If four? If five come crashing down upon our gate, will we be undefeated then?”
Even the cocky Dwarf frowned. “As sure as Kristina is my name,” she declared, “I’ll butcher them even if they come by the thong– I mean throngs! Throngs!”
“I only say this now to warn you: we must not forget who we are or what we aim to accomplish. Spilling blood is truly a glorious purpose, and reveling in the desecration of the holy lands of false gods and fake prophets is a great and glorious task . . . but . . . we must have a firm foundation for the future. If this is the most we can handle, and this is the result of the struggle”–Lucas sighed–“then I worry for tomorrow. I do not want to bring justice to a back alley; I do not want the message of justice and a better world to reach the end of a street and halt as we lack the force to push it forward. No, I will not be content with that. I will not be content with reaching a few dozen, with hiding in my hole, only this school and a hotel being the extent of my lands. No!” Lucas shook his head. “I want all of Humanity to fall within our domain. I want every man, woman, and child to know deep down who and what we are. We will protect them, we will deliver them from evils, and we will show them justice!” His goal was to strengthen his plea with hope for the NPCs while also challenging the players with an “I bet you can’t” tone. He was certain they would love the idea of testing their abilities.
“Ha! Why are you worried about Humanity?!” Kristina laughed. “Dwarves are where it’s at! We got the mighty beards that everyone loves!”
“You’re clean shaven,” a girl next to the Dwarf quickly said, confused by Kristina’s words.
“Don’t be so naive. You know what I mean,” Kristina replied. “Anyway, why worry about Humanity? This whole town is filled with sycophants, corrupt nobles, dirty merchants, and self-righteous, arrogant idiots. Let them rot! Let’s go to my hometown of Cologne and Trier and get our hands on the best beers a Dwarf can make! Notice I said ‘Dwarf,’ boss, because no offense to you, but Humans can’t make beer that’ll ever match even the Gnomes’ ale in Bavaria.”
“Well, the Alfar capital has the sweetest wines. Why must we always focus on beers?” a woman asked. “We also have the best meals and some of the best chefs.”
“If y’all had the best chefs, you wouldn’t all be so damn skinny. You’d disappear if you turned sideways! I swear, I thought Lucas was gonna kill one or two of you in the tub, or at the very least that you’d sink right through whatever drainage system they added to the damn thing if you slipped!” the Dwarf laughed.
“Oh, that’s rich. Not sure how I’d slip through anything if those beard hairs of yours are clogging up the–”
“STOP!” Lucas quickly shouted as loudly as he could. “How dare you bicker between each other? Do you think this is what we’ve come together for? Is infighting and squabbling all that we amount to? This makes us no better than the individuals you are mocking. They fight each other. They tear at each other, belittle each other, and try to find any reason to stand above one another. We are not them. In the eyes of the Blood Goddess, our veins are filled with the same red love that she will see coat the ground upon our deaths.
“You are all women I have loved and trusted, and you are all women I would see tomorrow with if possible. I do not want to hear of any of you, no matter how big or small the grievance you have with each other, forget that. Each of you has a piece of my heart with you, so I do not want any of you to forget that, when you mock one another, you are mocking that piece of me within you. You are mocking my feelings and affections.”
“Umm . . . Lord Lucas,” a man’s voice from the back appeared. “I mean, you’re saying that for everyone, right?”
“Yes,” Lucas quickly replied, nodding, all the while wondering, When did a guy join my ranks? I thought the only one, Nick, had left earlier. Only then did he remember the Fire Mage that had helped him set ablaze nearly an entire hotel floor. Right, right, Lucas thought to himself, looking over at Lilith as if to ask, You didn’t kill him already?
For her part, Lilith just shrugged. She seemed to have been taken aback by the fact the man had showed up again at some point. After what she had done to his corpse, or at least what Lucas assumed she had done to his corpse, he expected she was as confused as he was.
“I mean this for everyone. Every man, woman, and child that comes to serve me and the Blood Goddess, you are all my kin. You are all fighting on the front lines for my beliefs, carrying my heart with you as you spread my message and my justice to those who cannot defend themselves.” His words lacked some of the force they had earlier mustered as he was still trying to figure out when that mage had shown up again.
“Oh, that’s good,” the guy said. “‘Cause I had a really bad inkling you might kick me out like that other dude for getting too close to your harem of . . . I mean, your wonderful . . .” He looked a little panicked as the women all collectively shot him evil glares for speaking and interrupting Lucas. “Your beautiful and adoring fans. I might have upset your beautiful and adoring fans.”
“You saying I’m beautiful?” the Dwarf from earlier asked. “Don’t you be looking at me. I’ll split you like a boar.”
“I see you don’t care about my words at all,” Lucas said to Kristina with a sigh.
“What? No. NO! I mean, nice to meet you, sir. My name is Kristina the Great.” She set her battleaxe down and extended a hand to the Fire Mage.
“I’m . . . 1-Gold-a-Kill, the Fire Mage,” he responded, extending his hand to Kristina.
Haha, wait, did this guy change his name to his merc rate? Lucas had trouble not laughing at that idea, especially since a gold per kill was a very steep price. “Now, back to the matter,” Lucas said. “You must understand I’m not chastising or belittling you all. I have sincere concern that we won’t be able to spread our message to the ends of this world if we don’t gather more people, if we don’t take measures to uproot the powers that be, powers that are well defended and secure within this world, foes who will fight us every chance they get.”
“Right, right,” 1-Gold-a-Kill said, “which means we’re going to have to figure out how to unmelt all the gold coins we take from their burning bodies, right?”
“That’s why you cut people in half,” Kristina said. “The coins stay intact.”
“The whole body stays intact if you just poison them to death,” the Alfar that Kristina had been arguing with replied.
“Ugh, no, it doesn’t. It starts to smell wretched any time you kill someone, Bunny!”
“Alright, that’s it,” Lucas growled. “Next person arguing in front of me, I will personally kill right here and right now.”
“Easy, boss. You wouldn’t kill a girl would you?” Kristina asked.
“I saw him rip a girl’s head off and eat the eyeballs,” someone else informed Kristina quickly. “He even licked the skull clean of her brains.”
I did not do that! Lucas was immediately uncertain of how his reputation as a vile and devious monster spread like that among his fans.
“He never did that!” someone exclaimed, defending him before he had to. “He’s a gentle soul who only feeds on blood to sustain himself.”
“A pure prince charming!”
“No, he’s a wicked villain whose power is unchecked as he tyrannizes–”
“That’s enough!” Lucas channeled every bit of Arcane Energy he could into his leg, stamped hard on the ground, and started channeling Arcane Energy into a ball in his hand at the same time. He was surprised at how easily it shaped and molded. Arcane Energy did so little damage compared to other magics. The fact that he had taken quite a while to kill the two Paladins earlier, even with his massive mana pool, was proof of its relative weakness. Lucas knew why others didn’t practice the art, but the energy’s behavior in his palm was still interesting.
“Who wants to keep interrupting me? To look down on my authority within my realm and usurp my position? Come now, if you’re so brave. Speak up and meet your fate!” Lucas challenged, trying to look as intimidating as possible. This time, no one spoke up right after him. No one challenged or questioned what he was saying.
He looked down at the energy swirling in his hand, expecting to only see the mirage he had seen earlier, but the effect was completely different. The magic moved like a dark, heavy, swirling cloud slowly hovering up and down above his palm. It’s still only eating one percent of my total mana a second. Why does it look so much more deadly? Lucas wondered for a brief moment before casting his eyes back at the crowd.
“Now, I’m going to say this once and only once. Right now, you are not a team. You are not an ocean whose waves could crush any ship or wear away mountains with time. You are drops of rain collected in a glass at best. This is your weakness. Yes, this is your weakness. You must gather, swarm, and grow in number. This is my command to you. Whoever proves themselves a leader in the days to come by building the ranks and organizing the numbers, you will find your seat at my right hand side with those who have already proven both loyalty and ability above others.” Lucas motioned toward Bonnie, Viola, and Katie, who were standing near him as he spoke. “That is all,” Lucas declared with finality, turning around and walking out of the semicircle people had created around him.
“You’re not going to give them any direction?” Viola asked as soon as Lucas was far enough from the group behind him to safely be whispered to without others listening in. “Organize them at all?”
“No,” Lucas said, chuckling to himself. “If I tell them who is in charge, if I set up a structure and give them orders, those people at the top will be resented. Others will say that person doesn’t deserve the title or that this person’s rank wasn’t earned, that it was given out as a special favor. After the . . . uhhh . . . last night’s events”–Lucas had to stop himself from going into detail since the only thing he could picture while looking at Viola was the rather graphic image of her on top of him that began replaying itself in vivid detail every time he saw her face–“it’s not unreasonable for them to even say that they’ve traded in favors for their status.”
“So, you’re going to let them battle it out for the position of leader,” Viola noted, “and absolve yourself of all blame?”
“Yes. We’ll see who has the charisma and ability to take charge,” Lucas replied.
“What if it’s that guy, 1-Gold-a-Kill?” she asked with a laugh. “Will you kill him for threatening your harem?”
“Hey, I do not have a–” Lucas was going to argue against what could easily be a fact if he wanted it to be, but then his eyes caught sight of Bonnie, and he didn’t have the heart to continue. The scene with Nick earlier had been somewhat scripted from his end. He had planned out what he was going to say, but he hadn’t at all expected Lilith to step in and dig that knife the way she had. It was brutal, and the aftermath was visible. Bonnie looked nothing like the energetic and eager merc she had left as earlier, but more like a troubled teen just getting out of her grudge phase as she moped along.
“Bonnie,” Lucas said, reaching out a hand to her. He wanted to cheer her up, to comfort her, but when he did so, he didn’t expect the reaction he ended up getting.
“Yeah, boss?” Bonnie asked cheerfully. A smile blossomed across her face like a bright stargazer lily, and she practically glowed in response to the attention.
Crap. That quick switch, those flustered red cheeks–Lucas knew those well.
“I’ve got important work, and I’m going to need you to come with me to do it,” Lucas said. “I need you”–then he looked over at Viola–“and you as well to travel with me into town.”
“What’s there?” Viola’s voice was hushed as she, like Lucas, checked to make sure that others couldn’t hear her. “I only ask because I need to know what the stage will be.”
“Well,” Lucas answered, “I need you two to be the most elegant of guards a man could ask for. We’re going to be meeting nobles after all.”
“As bodyguards? Not dames and ladies?” Viola paused, her face tensing up and freezing that way for a moment. “Ah, then I have just the idea,” she said. “Bonnie, you’re good with wardrobe stuff, right?”
“I mean . . .” Bonnie pulled out her bag. “Yeah, my class specializes in stealth, and half of stealth is matching the right disguise to the area. If you try dressing up in the fanciest hood and weirdly colored clothes when you’re going through a town full of beggars and commoners, no matter how many people you surround yourself with, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.” Her words were an obvious dig at the old game Backstabber’s Greed, a collect-‘em-all button masher that required the player to somehow sneak through areas unnoticed while wearing the most conspicuous outfit imaginable and then mash one button over and over again during combat before traveling through a city in an elaborate scavenger hunt that ultimately only resulted in even more conspicuous gear. “That’s why the first thing I learned from my class trainer, Petty Officer Hays, was how to make the right outfit for the right job.”
“But you can draw up custom stuff too, right? Could you work with me on the design?” Viola asked. “And we’re going to need a new outfit for Lucas as well. Wait!” Viola paused. “How much time do we have?”
Lucas scratched at his chin. “How much time do you need exactly?”
“Thirty minutes!” Bonnie said, looking at him excitedly. “No matter what needs doing, give me thirty minutes. No, wait, twenty minutes!”
Lucas had wanted to head out right away, but given how defeated she had looked after the confrontation with Nick and how excited she looked now that there was the prospect of putting some clothes together, Lucas decided to wait. He didn’t want to cut the woman’s happiness short. Building anything always makes people happy, I guess. “How about you take forty minutes instead. Don’t rush it. We can easily spare that.”
“That’s perfect! We’ll make your entrance into nobility something others will drool over. Let’s go,” Viola said, grabbing Bonnie’s wrist and yanking her away before the girl could even agree or disagree with the new timeframe.
Lucas turned around expecting to find Lilith, but all he managed was to catch sight of her as she slinked off around a corner like a fading shadow in the distance.
“She does that,” Katie said as she followed Lucas’s gaze.
“That she does,” Lucas laughed.
“She’s not trustworthy,” Katie added.
“Nnn,” Lucas replied, repeating Katie’s usual one-sound response to everything.
“She’s not!” Katie repeated again with emphasis. “Be careful. She wants to use you.”
“Who doesn’t these days?” Lucas laughed to himself as he considered how everyone wanted something of him or for him to be someone he wasn’t.
“I don’t,” Katie stated. Her response took Lucas aback slightly. He knew that she honestly meant it, and just the sound of the words filled him up with a warmth he hadn’t known before. Then again, I did mind-control you into killing your allies when we met.
“Not even to find you people to shoot?” Lucas asked with a laugh as he recalled how into player-versus-player killing she was.
“Not even,” Katie said as she slithered up to him. Lucas was always fascinated by watching how her upper body remained practically static as her lower body slid across the ground. “You make a good friend. You’re my good friend. Friends don’t try to use each other. They benefit from each other’s company without expectation or reserve. You’re that type of guy. You’re a good egg. Even Great Great Great Grandpa Lee said so.”
Lucas didn’t know what was more surprising: the string of unwarranted compliments–ones he felt that he didn’t deserve given the circumstances–or the fact that she had said “great” three times in front of her grandpa Lee’s name. His brain bounced back and forth between responding to the first part of her notion and wanting to ask her how old this Lee was and how this Lee knew about him, or at least what she had said to this super-elderly man about him.
“Thanks a lot,” Lucas finally said, putting his curiosity to bed. Katie is a strange one. I think it’s better I don’t ask. “We got forty minutes to kill, so what do you want to do? We could go level?”
“Do you play chess?” Katie asked.
“I . . . haven’t since I was a kid.”
“Do you drink vodka?”
“I . . . sometimes?” Lucas didn’t actually like vodka that much. He liked his wines, his cheeses, his meads and ciders. The sweeter beverages were easy on his tongue.
“Nnn. Then we play, and we drink.” She pulled a table out of her bag along with a tall bottle of vodka and a chess board that she seemed capable of setting up instantly.
“You’re missing a chair,” Lucas said as he looked at the setup.
“Naga don’t need chairs,” Katie replied, her eyes signaling him to her bouncy, snake-like lower half and reminding him that a chair was something she didn’t have to think about.
“Right,” Lucas laughed. “I guess I’m standing then.”
Katie’s succinct reply, familiar and on point, was comforting. The long conversation–though still short by most people’s standards–had been shocking for him. He was happy to know she hadn’t changed too much. “So, I’m white?” Lucas asked, looking down at the board.
Then, with a smile that sent a chill to his bones, Katie replied, “Your move.” Her words, for the first time ever, felt dipped in poison.
Never mind. While playing chess, she’s completely different. Lucas frowned as he slowly moved his pawn on C2 forward to C4.
“That was a little humiliating,” Lucas grumbled when he saw a smirk spread across Katie’s face yet again. It was her patented “checkmate” smile that needed no words. She didn’t announce each triumph; she just let him slowly writhe as he tried to figure out what she had just done until he ultimately realized how badly he had been bested.
“Again?” Katie asked as she poured two doses of vodka, one for him and one for her.
“I think I’ve had enough defeats for a day,” Lucas said as he eyed his saviors, the returning Viola and Bonnie. They were dressed up in outfits that, while more appropriate to the period, still had the horribly obvious signs of being video-game-only outfits, which centered around tight cuirasses so compactly pressed against their skin that they might as well have been corsets instead of pieces of armor. The “cuirasses” rose up the women’s torsos to form bra-like supports before connecting with slightly oversized shoulder pauldrons, leaving a large gap for each woman’s cleavage to poke through. One of their shoulder pauldrons, the left one specifically, was unnecessarily large and seemingly disconnected from the armor on their arms, and a piece of filigree-covered steel jutted up from the pauldron at the end closest to their faces. If they needed to, Bonnie and Viola could likely duck their heads and raise their shoulders to protect the side of their faces. The opposite pauldron was invisible and seemed to act as the hooking point for each side of a cape that was draped over the right shoulder and fell behind them.
Their arms were fully covered since each joint in the armor extended partially outward, and their sabatons and greeves mimicked the design, forming triangle shapes as they cascaded up and down their legs. Beginning at the poleyn, the brace around the knee, their armor was almost entirely missing the fauld, or the metal skirt covering the waist. Instead of having full faulds, the getups only had a few small sheets of ornate metal hanging off the left side and dangerously short white skirts that did little to cover up the fact neither set of armor had a cuisse or anything more than the leather stockings that popped out from underneath their greaves to protect the tops of their legs.The armor was solid black and embossed with flowery gold designs, and the only difference between the two was their capes. Bonnie’s cape was a deep, dark red, which was more crimson than her hair, yet somehow matched it perfectly as the cape flowed above the window in her armor showing off her cleavage, over her shoulder, and down her back. Viola’s, however, was a dark hue of purple that set off her eyes.
“Wow, you two look . . .” Lucas was at a loss for words as he stared at the two. They looked like angels descended into carnage. He noticed that they each also had a sword sheathed on their right side despite the fact that neither of them used a sword as their weapon of choice. Bonnie could probably prove adept to some degree, but lacking a skill set that would allow her to transfer stamina into damaging combos, the weapon would, for the most part, remain ineffectual in a real struggle. Viola’s might as well have been a paper weight. Even though they looked well armed, armored, and dangerous, Lucas couldn’t help but think about how helpless they’d be if an actual fight broke out. “Amazing,” Lucas finally mouthed, the last word coming out as he finished eyeing them from head to toe.
“Do you like it?” Bonnie asked, beaming in anticipation of praise.
“Yeah, it’s great,” Lucas replied with several encouraging nods. “Really great, but . . . I thought you only worked with leather, cloth, and the like. That’s clearly armor.”
“That’s my fault,” Willmarth the Blacksmith said as he walked up behind the women. “I heard the ladies wanted to make a costume for some ball and that they wanted to be your guards, and that one there”–Willmarth pointed at Bonnie–“had tried to borrow my tools to adjust a heel. I was like, what woman wears heels into combat? All your power comes from your heel, your stability, your foot. No power, no damage–what kind of guard can you make out of that? They’d be about as useful as a pair of barking rat dogs!”
“So . . . you did their whole outfits?”
“With their help for the designs, but yeah. Now, they look great.”
“And the . . . uhh . . .” Lucas looked at the gaps where there wasn’t armor, but a whole lot of skin instead.
“That was their idea. I thought we should cover it up. Clear vulnerability. Too many of those, and entering a battle field might turn out to be as dangerous as opening a mystery door,” Willmarth said.
Viola snickered. “Putting on a performance is meant to have an air of danger. Otherwise, it’s just boring.”
“Well a good stab in the leg is too much stimulation for this old man,” Willmarth grumbled.
“Coming from the guy who has almost blown himself up how many times?” Bonnie asked, glowering.
“So, like I was saying, they’ve paid for the work,” Willmarth continued, “and they also paid me to . . . Well, they said you needed something made for you as well.”
“What is it that has you so reticent?” Lucas asked.
“Well, it’s just that . . . it ain’t natural.” Willmarth winced as he pulled out the outfit.
At first, Lucas didn’t know what had the blacksmith skittish. Willmarth was, after all, a man who didn’t seem to have an issue with blowing holes in walls, blowing people up, and giving random adventurers bombs that they would, sometimes, use to level entire buildings on top of unsuspecting families–but then he saw what the blacksmith pulled out, and he nearly burst out laughing. It was the head of Ostreicher’s man, Blackmer. It had been gutted and cleaned, and where once there had been eyeballs, now two glowing red gems adorned the sockets. It had also been fitted and dejawed in just the right way to sit upon Lucas’s head with the fur draping down a little on each side. Unlike the silky, practically shimmering cloaks on Viola and Bonnie, Lucas’s was a rough-looking swath of fabric made from wolf skin with splotches of dried blood still on it. The pauldrons were black studded leather, but there was nothing covering the chest area but a few straps of leather that seemed to serve no other purpose than to tie the pauldrons to his shoulders. The skimpy straps stretched across the otherwise-open chest with a little buckle on each of them for tightening. Then, to keep the outfit family friendly, there was a kilt made of animal skin with a large, hand-width leather belt to hold the thing in place. The shoes that went with it might as well have just been fur wraps with more leather belts to hold them in place.
“That’s a skirt,” Lucas said as he stared at the lower half of the outfit.
“It’s got arm wraps,” Willmarth grumbled as he pulled out more fur with black leather cords that Lucas assumed he had to use as the arm coverings.
“I like the helmet,” Lucas said as he started to disrobe in place and pull the getup on. “But this is still a skirt.”
“It’s more manly if you call it a kilt,” Viola offered. “And it just seemed right. Pants looked like they’d be too constricting for your image. Bonnie, you designed it. You tell him.”
“Viola said she wanted to make you look like a barbarian,” Bonnie replied, shrugging indifferently.
“But, you know I’m a wizard, right? Or Lich, to be more specific?” Lucas countered.
“Well, now you’re a wizardarian,” Viola said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“And why is that?” Lucas asked.
“You’re going to meet nobles, right?” she asked.
“Yes, which is the reason I’m curious about why you’re dressing me up like a barbarian from a late-1990s video game,” Lucas said as he donned the headdress.
“That was actually a man’s head,” Willmarth commented to himself. He looked a little queasy while watching Lucas adjust it. “It just ain’t right.”
“‘Was’ is the key word, Willmarth,” Lucas replied, doing his best to suppress the smug smile spreading across his face. He couldn’t deny the fact he liked this outfit.
“Well, for starters, you’ve already played the gentleman, the rogue, and the daring noble and stolen the hearts of the people that way,” Viola began.
“And it was working,” Lucas noted.
“Well, to those in court, that image is impossible,” Viola explained. “No matter how well you dress, it will only work on commoners and merchants, who lack real familiarity with the trappings of tradition and high society. To those nobles, you’re not a gentleman: you’re a barbarian. You’re a filthy mongrel who has defied order and rebelled against the status quo.”
“So, I shouldn’t fight it, but embrace it . . .” Lucas nodded in agreement. What she was saying made sense. If he couldn’t be a gentleman, he’d have to own another niche. Avoiding competition in futile struggles was just basic logic, and he felt a little annoyed for not having considered this angle. Of course, Lucas didn’t actually believe he’d lose a battle of charm thanks to his absurd Charisma score, but Viola still had a point. At the very least, the new look would add some shock factor to his campaign that might increase the other players’ awareness of him.
“That and the fact your area of expertise is magic,” Bonnie said, “but you’ve twice shown you’re good with melee. If you can dispell people’s notions that you’re weak and breakable up close, then . . .” She paused as if searching for the right words only to have Viola jump in again.
“Then you won’t have to worry in PVP skirmishes as much. If people think you’re as deadly up close as you are far away, which this outfit will hopefully make them assume, then they’re much less likely to focus on you first. Instead, they’ll go after us poor little healers and the mages who are dressed like mages.”
“Ah . . . so by making myself look very vulnerable and leaving giant openings in my chest for anyone to stab, it’ll be like I’m inviting them to do so. And they’ll hesitate, favoring the sure target instead.”
“Exactly. If you dress the mage as a knight, then he might not be the first one backstabbed by rogues,” Bonnie replied with a grin.
“Well, I can’t say I don’t like it,” Lucas admitted. “It is quite pleasant. There is only one small issue . . .”
“If someone does get close, they’ll be able to do a ton of damage quickly and probably kill you fast?” Viola asked, guessing Lucas’s concern.
“Yeah, that.” Lucas chuckled at how nonchalant Viola was with the whole potentially campaign-ending issue.
“Not a big deal. We’re going to a party, not a battlefield. Just be all scary and . . . well, yourself. You’ll be fine,” Viola said, patting him on his shoulders.
“And . . . did you like it?” Bonnie asked, eagerly watching his face for any sign of approval.
“Yeah, it’s nice,” Lucas said, adjusting the pauldrons for a moment before taking in one deep breath. Even if I am probably as combat effective as an NPC in a PVE-based Asian MMO, the outfit does look awesome.
“Wait!!! WAIT FOR ME!” a voice cried out as the mage, 1-Gold-a-Kill, came rushing toward them. “Don’t leave without me!”
“What’s going on?” Lucas asked, looking over at his faction member.
“You can’t leave me. They’ll eat me alive. That Kristina girl has been eyeing me like a cat ready to pounce on a tiny, little flightless bird,” the mage huffed. “And they outnumber me . . . too many to count to one.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Lucas replied, doing his best not to laugh in the distraught mage’s face.
“It is! It is! Just . . .” The mage looked at the top of Lucas’s outfit, at Blackmer’s head. “Just bear with me for a minute and let me come with you. You’re signing my death certificate,” he said, twisting the words “you’re signing” to sound more like “ursine’n’.”
“We’re off to meet nobles,” Lucas said, “and you’re not wearing proper attire for that.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I picked up an execution quest in this area before we met– it’s what had me in this mid-level zone–and, well, while getting ahead, I was able to get the proper dress from success.” To make a point, he pulled out a formal-looking wizard’s robe that he pulled on over what he was already wearing.
“For success,” Willmarth corrected.
“No,” the mage shot back with a smile. “I took the dress from a successful person. I think my way of saying it is better.”
“Definitely looks like a dress,” Lucas commented as he studied the regal markings on the two long sash-like banners flowing down the left and right side of the gown. Each was adorned with what Lucas could only assume were the royal, academy, or house symbols of whatever archmage he had offed to get this.
“I don’t feel like that’s an issue you want to be skirting around,” the man said as he looked at Lucas’s hide kilt. “You better make sure you have some . . . uhh . . . underlying issues protected before you do any fancy combat moves. Wouldn’t want more than just your temper rising before a fight.”
“Why not?” Lucas laughed. “It’s more fun if there is some risk.”
“Don’t worry,” Viola said with a hint of disappointment in her voice. “He’s got underwear on.”
“Nnn,” Katie confirmed.
“Well, either way, just let me come with you. Pleeeaase!” the mage begged.
“You have to change your name then,” Lucas replied. “I can’t be introducing you as 1-Gold-a-Kill every time we meet someone new. It’s ridiculous.”
“Fine, fine,” the mage grumbled.
“And we need payment,” Viola added. “If you want to come with us, pay the fare. I had to give up a small elven kingdom–one that I pretty much owned entirely.”
“It was a tiny village with barely a hundred people,” Bonnie immediately interjected.
“I said it was small, so don’t try to correct me, lil’ sis,” Viola replied with a laugh.
1-Gold-a-Kill hesitated. “You’re making me pay just so I get to stay in your faction but don’t have to deal with your crazy harem and can come with you instead?” the mage asked, scratching at his chin.
“Your choice,” Viola replied.
“Fine, fine. Here.” The mage took out a small box the size of two large clasped hands. “If I have to pay for life insurance, I will.”
“What’s this?” Lucas asked as he took the box in his hands.
“It’s the only payment for this life insurance policy I’m after that could match the chilling reception you’re giving me,” he answered.
“I see,” Lucas said, looking at the box. He noticed two small entry points for mana on either side. He pressed his hand onto them before injecting some mana through the holes into the box, and as soon as he did, the air around him stilled. The temperature started dropping rapidly, and a gust of wind exited from the box, circling around him before gushing out of the bottom of the box onto his foot and then extending outward and upward. The longer he kept channeling mana into the device, the more the swirling wind beneath his feet kicked up, creating a whirlwind of frost and chilling air that made Bonnie and Viola back up immediately.
Lucas tried channeling his energy faster, but the spell was apparently locked at a maximum of 45 mana per second, which was 1.7% of his total mana. He could easily maintain this spell during a fight if he needed to, but the way it seemed to indiscriminately rip and tear at everything in his surroundings would likely make it a very useful but niche spell. He had made a point of remembering to do something about friendly fire earlier, and he didn’t want to start out by setting a bad example and being guilty of it himself.
“Easy there,” the mage quipped, ducking his head into his outfit as if he were a turtle trying to retreat into his shell. “Some of us can’t handle a single cold shoulder, much less all this.”
“It’s a nifty gift,” Lucas said as he held it in his hands. “Where’d you get it?” He wondered where he could get the spell again in the future.
“Forglore of Northman’s Fury tossed it at me as a gift . . . for warming up one of his guests that had drunk too much,” 1-Gold-a-Kill explained with a smile. “After all, it’s rude to have a cold guest.”
“You burned him alive with a spell, didn’t you?” Lucas asked pointedly.
“It sounds so much worse the way you say it. I prefer to think that I . . . made sure he was warm for the rest of his life.”
“Well, either way, you still need a normal name,” Lucas insisted.
“Fine. If the great Lucas demands a name, I’ll just call myself . . . 8-Silver-a-Kill. It’s 20% less awesome, but it should work, right?” the mage replied.
“Your new name is Grulke, Robert Grulke, son of Jay Grulke, third in line for the Grulkatheon house of Saltheon,” Viola said, throwing out a whole backstory with the name. “You’ve entered the employ of Lucas in order to spite your father, who is planning on leaving you nothing upon his passing after stating that any real Grulke should be able to tear a man’s chest open barehanded.”
“That feels like an even larger mouth full than the previous name,” 1-Gold-a-Kill said.
“You’re Bob now, no arguments about it,” Willmarth added, staring at the box in Lucas’s hand with apprehension, as if Lucas was going to activate it again at any moment.
“You ever worked with one of these?” Lucas asked as he noticed the focus of Willmarth’s gaze.
“Magic circuits? Yeah, just never one that large. Who the heck could even use a staff for that?” Willmarth replied.
“Well, Forglore couldn’t find anyone who wanted Apollyon’s Prison. It’s half the reason it was so cheap,” the freshly renamed Bob said.
“Apollyon’s Prison . . .” Lucas mulled the spell’s name over in his head a few times. He liked it. “How about we forgo the staff?” Lucas asked as he looked at the thing. “We could put it in a shield or . . .”
“We could make a large freaking blade! Like a greatsword and smush this into the actual blade of it!” Willmarth said excitedly. “Then, we could also–”
“We’re not making explosives out of it,” Lucas stated, cutting the bomb-happy man off before he had a chance to go any further.
“I mean, you really can’t go wrong with stuff that causes fire too,” Bob commented. “Adding explosives would make it a real hot-ticket item.”
Lucas gave Bob a slight frown. “You know, if you’re going to do that the whole time . . .”
“Make bad puns?” Bob asked. “Yeah, I plan to. Do I need to pay extra?”
“Do you have extra to pay?” Lucas asked. He didn’t really mind the puns, but he wouldn’t say no to a free spell.
“Not right now, but I’m sure I can help you find one in the grand server auction house,” the mage said, still smiling.
“Alrighty then,” Lucas laughed. “Let’s go see what our nobles at court are up to.” Lucas then turned to Willmarth. “And while we’re gone . . .” He paused, thinking about the spells on his new staff. He was able to open up the map editor since there were no immediate threats and pull Eri straight to him. The now not-so-little Ant-Dragon appeared in front of him and then smiled up at him expectantly while purple lightning occasionally crackled and popped around her mouth.
“Hey, Eri, I left a staff by the pool in my backpack. Can you get it?” Lucas asked, and the monster nodded enthusiastically. Even if Eri didn’t always use words, Lucas knew that their psychic bond allowed them to understand each other easily. After all, he had helped her hatch by infusing part of his essence into her.
It didn’t take Eri more than a minute or two to cross the distance via her tunnel network and return with the staff, which she promptly handed to Lucas. It was an incredibly powerful staff, but he could always replace it by using his points to purchase another from the Blood Goddess just as he had with this one. Lucas broke the staff in two and gutted it before tossing Willmarth both the staff’s magic board and the boxed one from Bob.
“Can you add these magic boards to the sword as well?” Lucas asked.
“You’re asking the impossible of me,” Willmarth complained.
“If you do a good job, then the impossible is all I’m going to ask. I won’t ask you who all those annoying rebels kept acquiring their bombs from back on Hesse,” Lucas said, raising an eyebrow knowingly.
“What?! I thought you knew about that. I thought that it was common knowledge that . . . umm . . . other people are up to no good. Yeah, it musta been that darn rascal Joey selling his custom explosives . . .” Willmarth replied, playing innocent.
“That’s the name of your dog . . .” Lucas gave Willmarth a dead-eyed stare. “Anyway, finish that impossible stuff so I don’t have to ask any more questions–like about what happened to the rear of my newly acquired hotel.”
“Damn slave driver,” Willmarth grumbled as he turned around, but Lucas knew it wasn’t serious. “If Joey were here, he’d protect me.”
“Nnn. Slave driver,” Katie said, a faint smile appearing on her face. “I want to go build something now. I’ll be back.” She then slithered off in the same direction as Willmarth, likely planning on using his forge to make whatever she had in mind.
“Calls you a slave driver and then leaves after barely five words?” Bob said with a sigh. “Cold-blooded.”
“You’re only saying that cause she’s a Naga?” Lucas asked.
“So, off to see the wizard?” Bob asked.
However, behind the jovial fellow, Lucas could see Bonnie staring at him with an angry expression.
“Why does it feel like we picked up another Nick every time he talks?” Viola asked after shooting Bob a sidelong glance that carried with it the playfulness of a knife to the gut.
“Well, even if you can’t ‘C’ the Nick, you’ll hear it just the same,” Bob said as he grinned at the two girls. The way he was speaking sounded off to Lucas, like a stage comic that had to be funny but couldn’t land a joke.
What’s he up to? Lucas wondered, but he didn’t give it too much thought as they walked toward the court, enjoying the moments of silence as the whole group seemed to give up on conversation and take in the sights. He also rather enjoyed the fact that everyone stopped to stare at him everywhere they went. If this had been a few months ago, he’d have hated it, especially if he were still just “Negative,” where this much attention would likely be followed by an act of violence and a respawn.
As that memory of being killed over and over again for people’s momentary amusement crept into his head, he felt an awful hatred grip him. He wanted to kill everyone there was. That annoyance was something he had forgotten about, brushed off, and ignored. He had been so busy dealing with his own emotional turmoil from losing his wife that he had completely forgotten what was happening, ignoring those who had bothered him as they weren’t able to do anything worse to him than he had been doing to himself. Now, however, just the recollection was causing Lucas to feel indiscriminate murderous intent swelling up within him. He wanted to butcher anyone and everyone he could see as he recalled all the times he had been murdered by random passersby just so they could get their kicks off at his expense.
“Nice hand effect,” Viola said, pointing to Lucas’s fist.
It is, Lucas thought, looking down to see the Arcane Energy he had been unconsciously channeling swirl around his fist, pour out of his hand, and slowly dissipate into the air.
“Hey, Bob,” Lucas said, looking over at the new recruit as he thought of something. “Can you channel some Arcane Energy out of your hand for me?”
“Want a hand job? No problem,” Bob said, holding up his hand and spewing out Arcane Energy. As Lucas studied the effect, he couldn’t help but notice two things: One, it was remarkably similar looking to the effect he had just seen on his own fist. Two, it was also very different. Lucas’s fist had looked roughly the same with a mirage-like effect taking place around it, but when Bob channeled the energy, the size and shape of Bob’s hand appeared to Lucas to change. It was like Bob’s hand was under water, and if he reached for the hand he saw, he was almost certain he wouldn’t be able to hit the real one.
So this is why those Paladins from before missed, Lucas thought as he stared at the warping image of Bob behind the Arcane Energy.
“What’s this look like to you?” Lucas asked, once more channeling the energy into his own hand.
“Like you’re wrapping your hand in weird, wispy mirrors, and it’s there, but it isn’t there,” Bob said. “Neat trick. How do you do it?”
He can’t tell when he does it himself, Lucas realized. It’s the same as when I created the effect on my own hand. I could still see through the energy. It warped the space, and it created an odd effect, but everything was still visible for me. When Bob did it, from my perspective, it had been as if Bob had covered his hands in wispy little mirrors, obscuring my vision. This is . . . really powerful.
“I don’t get why you two are saying there is a difference,” Bonnie chimed in. “When Nick Two does it, when you do it, it looks the same.”
“Really now?” Bob stared at his hand, mimicking the fascinated expression that Lucas wore.
“We’re here. Stop staring at your hand like you’re checking to see if hair grew on the back of it,” Viola said with a snicker as she and Bonnie fell in behind Lucas. Both of them took up positions flanking him while doing their best to look tough and imposing as they approached the gate.
“You are?” the guard at the gate asked.
“Lucas, Baron Lucas of Hesse, ruler of the previous House von Maidbanger,” Lucas answered. “Or something like that.”
“Baron or not,” the guard said, eyeing Lucas’s signet ring, the mark of his rank, “you can’t come in dressed like that.”
Lucas just stared for a second at the gates in front of him. “I will come in however I feel like,” Lucas answered coldly. “The question is whether you will still be breathing when I do and whether you wish to keep those arms of yours. You, a filthy guard, trying to bar the entry of your betters?” He didn’t much like insulting someone based on their rank–it left him feeling a little dirty inside–but it served its purpose. He could see the guard’s face blanch and his eyes open wide.
“It’s not . . . It’s not my request, my lord. The rules of court state that–”
“Do you know why I have these few drops of blood on my face?” Lucas asked, leaning into the guard’s face so that their noses were an inch apart at most. He only stopped when they were so close that he could feel the guard’s breath on his face. “Do you know whose they are?”
“I . . .” The guard closed his eyes, his back straightening, and he stuttered out a reply.
“It’s not mine after all. I wasn’t hurt. It’s the blood from the Chief Paladin of the Church of Light, whose head I splattered oh-so nicely moments ago after killing his entire troop. Now that the deed is done, I’m going to go in and tell the King about the Church’s treasonous actions against the nobility. If you act to stop me, if you don’t open this door, bow, and show me the niceties due to a noble of my stature, then the only thing that will change is the number of people I have to tell His Majesty I killed on my way to see him,” Lucas said with as much bloody fervor as he could.
“I- I–” The guard finally opened his eyes and looked over at his comrade standing by the other side of the gate, who nodded nervously. “I’m sorry we kept you waiting. Reporting treason of course comes before decorum, my lord,” the guard said as he finally relented, quickly opening the gate to the building and letting Lucas pass with his two ladies and his court wizard.
“You didn’t even have blood on your face though . . .” Bonnie observed as they exited earshot. “I don’t think you spilled any blood at all on you during the fight.”
“Well, it’s not like that kid will ever know,” Bob remarked with a laugh. “I thought he was about to relieve himself of his duties right then and there.”
“Did you just . . .” Bonnie began, stopping almost immediately to sigh. “He needs to start paying all of us if he’s going to tag along and bug us with that type of crass pun.”
“Seconded!” Viola chirped.
“Hey! That . . . That was a classic! And expected! It was my duty to tell it,” Bob argued.
While Bonnie and Viola both groaned and continued their complaints, Lucas had to do his best not to laugh as he listened to the man be chided. Personally, he found the man’s puns funny and refreshing, but he knew that admitting it would likely incite a rebellion from his two most loyal cohorts. “What do you think Liu is doing right now?” was all he said instead. “You think she’s made it out of the kingdom yet?”
“Oh,” Bonnie responded, frowning, “Maybe . . . Probably? She’s resourceful.”
“The question is more whether she’s killed Nick yet,” Viola commented. “Liu does not have your patience for his personality, and she’s much more likely to kill a bad stagehand than you are.”
“Nick’s not that bad,” Bonnie opined. Throughout the banter, she kept close to Lucas, mimicking Viola’s steps perfectly as the two followed him up the stairs and toward the final door.
At the final door, there were butlers and maids waiting rather than guards, and they didn’t bother to stop Lucas as they opened the large entrance and allowed Lucas’s crew to see the inside of the court.
Inside was largely the same based on what Lucas remembered yet completely different at the same time. It was still the same large empty Buckingham-palace-level stateroom of a fancy establishment that he had visited previously. There were still large arches leading to square-tiled roofs, each with a picture across it, and heavy crystal chandeliers hanging from above. The same group of mages was constantly channeling power into the Arcane Energy lines that ran up the walls, through the ceiling, and down into the chandelier to speckle the entire room with a gentle radiant light. The decor and environment hadn’t changed at all. Even the people seated between the large white walls, which were just as white as the cliffs outside the city, were the same faces as those he remembered from his last visit. They were even dressed in the same pompous, self-assuming outfits that Lucas could only imagine were hell for any maid to clean. However, the place felt different. It lacked the air of elegance and regality it had before. Previously, the nobles had been boisterous. Their chatter and gossip had drowned each other out and created a level of privacy within the noise that let anyone speak and gossip freely without even the wind being able to make out a word they were saying.
Now, however, the air was still. If Lucas had snickered under his breath, he was sure someone across the room would have heard it. There was only muttering and murmuring as everyone constantly cast glances from side to side, and their faces were filled with nervous apprehension that reminded Lucas of a boardroom at a company that had just posted record losses. They were anxiously exchanging glances as if one of them had inside information that might save their life.
A few looked at Lucas as he entered but then quickly turned away, ignoring him as if he never existed. For a moment, he thought that everyone would avoid him, but then one person finally called out to him from the far side of the room at the top of his lungs.
“LUCAS!!!” the familiar voice yelled, the speaker raising his hand and waving Lucas over. “Lucas!! By the God of Luck and Ladies, I’m so glad you’re here! Everyone has been so weird and tense and stressed today. I told father that you’d come and that everything would be alright.”
“How many times must I remind you to show a modicum of respect for the quiet of the hall, Rowland,” Edmund, Rowland’s father, chastised as he dodged Rowland’s attempt to pull at his arm.
“Father! It’s Lucas! Again! Didn’t you say he’d be dead by now? But here he is, so it’s kinda like a miracle, right? He proved you wrong and stayed alive to come visit us again!”
“Are you completely dense? Entirely oblivious to the ramifications of associating with this man right now?” Edmund spat. “I did not say he would be dead before he got here: I said he would be dead once he got here. Can you not even detect such an obvious difference in meaning?”
“You’re just trying to make me jealous again,” Dennings said as she came up next to Rowland.
“You’ve done such great things for this city, weeding out corruption and cleansing the wicked and fiendish underbelly of our once-great city. With you fighting for us, the Humans will retake this world in no time!” Rowland said enthusiastically as he pushed forward to throw an arm over Lucas’s shoulder.
However, before he could even get within a foot of Lucas, Viola had already drawn her sword, and she placed herself between Lucas and Rowland, angrily staring the enthusiastic man down.
“Good,” Dennings said with a smirk as Rowland stared at Viola in shock. “It’s nice to know I’m not the only jealous woman. Back up, dear. You don’t want to be butchered for a hug.”
“But I like hugs . . .” Rowland pouted.
“Are they worth dying for?” Dennings asked with a pouty face.
“Only yours are,” he responded, swooping Dennings into a hug so that the two could canoodle as usual.
“Awwww! COME HERE!” Dennings replied, returning Rowland’s hug as tightly as possible.
“Dennings, Rowland,” the older grey-haired woman that Lucas remembered as Dennings’ grandmother called out to the two. “Be still lest your actions invite a demise that even we can’t protect you from. In this instance, how can you not see that your impropriety shall welcome death to your doorstep?”
“Children,” Edmund huffed.
“I believe it’s too late for you to hide your son’s connection with the traitor,” a noble said to the group before backing up.
“Yes, perhaps the King will find out that you, too, are a traitor,” another noble said before stepping away. In a moment, the entire area around Rowland, which had been full of people on all sides, had cleared until only Rowland’s group and Lucas’s were left.
“Traitor?” Lucas said as he watched them leave. “Ha! Ha ha! Ha ha ha!” He deliberately laughed in a manner anyone could recognize as forced, albeit not as awkwardly as a typical Japanese game character.
“You find your situation funny? Or ours now that you have aligned our homes in disrepute?” Edmund scoffed. “Of course you would.”
“Of course. Because I’m a barbarian, I would find anything that gives me reason to kill amusing.” Lucas was beginning to fully appreciate how quiet and icy the atmosphere was, so chill and yet at the same time turbulent that it perfectly matched the spell Bob had given him earlier.
“At least you know!” Edmund’s huffing had turned his entire face red, yet he hadn’t backed up an inch from his position as the other cowardly nobles had.
“It’s like watching an episode of Uptown Snobbery on that British television network,” Bob said. “The way he talks is so perfect. I almost want to see if he has any footmen to serve us tea and crumpets.”
“My footmen would only serve you notice to depart,” Rowland’s father snapped. He kept getting madder and madder, but before he could continue to respond to Bob, all of them were interrupted by clapping from the other side of the court.
“Congratulations,” a voice said as the man behind it continued to clap. “You have made a mockery of my kindness, betrayed our kingdom, and still had the gall to show up. I’m quite proud of you. You are, as you say, a true barbarian, ignorant of all social norms.”
“A mockery of your town?” Lucas turned to face his accuser. It was the King, but his hostility confused Lucas. From his calculations, the King should have been on his side. There was no reason for him to oppose Lucas. He had been the driving wedge that had freed the King from the constant pressure and control of the nobles. It wasn’t hard to see, especially given how muted the King’s presence was during his last visit and how much free reign the nobles had. The stronger the aristocracy, the more decentralized the monarch’s power and the weaker the throne was. Lucas represented a disruption to that decentralization. He had shattered the aristocracy’s power, so the fact that the King was currently angry with him, calling him a traitor and levying accusations against him, was a bit surprising.
Et tu, King? Lucas studied the man up and down. “Is it my attire you disdain?” Lucas asked with a smile. “Is it the women I keep? The people I’ve murdered? Come now. Tell me. What’s got your skin, little crown?” Lucas taunted. If he was already an enemy, there was no reason to keep with the formalities. “Did they drip hebenon in your ears, my Jutish King Horwendil? Or were you always this rotten of the brain?” Lucas asked.
Guards began appearing out of the woodwork as Lucas spoke, pushing their way past the nobles as they created a box around Lucas’s group. Lucas didn’t know if he could even take one of them without a proper weapon. He wasn’t sure how strong the guards were, but he was positive that he would definitely struggle against ten or twenty of them, and now there were at least fifty or sixty. They were all wearing full plate armor with medium shields bearing the royal symbols on them and held sharp bastard swords at the ready.
This is definitely going to be pleasant, Lucas thought, knowing he couldn’t defeat them anyway if a fight broke out.
“The thing I hate most about traitors is that they always wear the guise of either innocence or self-righteous adherence to an infallible cause as they draw their last breath,” the King said. “It is a pity you are no different. I should be the one to ask you the questions instead. Why do you believe your words matter when your facts are known, traitor?”
“That word again,” Lucas said with a sigh. “So, are you going to tell me what my crime was? What I did? Or are you just going to try to silence me right away?” Lucas laughed as he emphasized the word “try” while flexing his muscles as much as he could. He wished he had more points in Athletics so that his muscles were better, but he settled for what he had as he did his best to sell the image of a bloodthirsty, brutish barbarian. “Come on, little crown! Speak!!”
“You know exactly what you did!” the King growled, turning away from him briefly as a woman walked up beside him. She was dressed in one of the most elegant, sleak, and slimming white dresses Lucas had ever seen. Based on the way the shimmering fabric in her gown caught the light from the chandelier and how her diamond-encrusted tiara sat beautifully on her head as her long flowing hair framed her gorgeous face, it was plain for anyone to see that she was one of the most beautiful women in the entire kingdom. “You have taken my daughter’s heart! Seducing royalty above your station in your quest to steal the throne!” the King continued without missing a beat, yet the introduction of the woman had created a stilling calm in the air, making Lucas forget for a moment that the King was talking as he studied the girl approaching. Lucas couldn’t help but think, In that dress, she’s almost as pretty as Liu . . . almost.
“Father, if stealing a heart is a crime, then you must outlaw breathing. For in every breath he draws, he draws in my affection too,” the daughter said wistfully, leaving Lucas and his cohorts befuddled.
“That’s . . .” Bonnie forgot the silent characters she and Viola were playing as she reached out a hand to touch Lucas’s back. “That’s . . .”
“It is,” Lucas agreed.
“Don’t speak mad! It was no passive trick for him! He’s a sorcerer! I’ve heard tell of how he has comforted a thousand women! How even just last night he was with scores of women! Do you not see that it is mind control? That his words are worming their way into innocent people’s heads as he uses his magical charm to control people?”
“That . . .” The daughter looked at her father aghast, an expression of shock across her face. “How could you ever accuse him of such a vile act?! He has no more cast a spell on me than I have on him! The only thing that has happened here is that you have lost faith in me while at the same time demanding I lose faith in others . . . but faith is the block upon which our kingdom is built!”
“Why is she talking like that?” Bonnie whispered, her voice not as quiet as she probably imagined it.
Lucas just shrugged in response. He was just as confused about what was going on as Bonnie was.
“Daughter! You’re clearly bewitched! This is a madman! Just look at his dress! He even came to court with two strumpets at his side and some bumbling fool to watch whatever sick and perverse things he’s up to! It’s madness, my daughter!”
“No,” the woman replied. She shook her head as she walked even closer to her father. Her smile was so radiant that it managed to brighten the room like a morning sun first striking through the night sky at the crack of dawn. “It’s not madness. It’s not a spell. It’s . . .” She paused, and then her hand moved so fast that Lucas had trouble following the motion as she drove a knife home into her father’s gut. She yanked the blade out as soon as it had gone in, causing blood to spray out onto her once-pristine and pure white dress, leaving bright crimson streaks. “It’s love. It’s faith. It’s understanding.”
“How . . .” The father gasped as he took a step back, but no sooner had he done so than she followed up by taking a step closer and stabbing him again. “How could you do this to your own father?!” he managed to ask despite the growing flood of life spilling from his chest. “This . . . This betrayal! Your brothers will have you killed!” He pressed his hands against his wounds, desperately trying to stop the flow of blood.
“Oh, a bit late for that,” the woman replied with a grin. “I killed them on my way here. The royal guard that once protected them so devoutly . . . They were all called to spend the day here, waiting for the arrival of some random barbarian, so I used that opening to finally do what I’ve been waiting to do for years: become your only successor.”
“You monster! How could I have raised such a beast?!” the man cried as he fell to the floor, still clutching his wound. “How could I have not seen it sooner?!”
“Because you can’t see anything.” The woman’s smile never faltered as she licked part of the blade clean of her own father’s blood. “You were blind, you were weak, and you were indecisive. How else do you think our country, which once ruled the four corners of the world and crushed all opposition with an iron fist, has fallen so far if not for weak and blind men like you?”
“You are not my daughter!” the man cried, the shock and pain clear across his face.
“Luckily for our country, our people, and mankind as a whole, I am.” She knelt down on top of her dad and held him in place before stabbing his throat with her knife and sealing his fate for good. “And now, more than your daughter, I am your successor.” She mouthed something inaudible to the King as he bled out the last drops of life in him and then stood. “I officially accept the title,” she proclaimed, her grin growing even larger, “of Queen.”
As those words left her mouth, everyone that was watching stood frozen in shock. Lucas had the vague inkling that no one knew how to handle this situation. After several moments of quiet, the guards, already facing the Queen, began to kneel down one at a time. Only three or four of the men remained standing with their weapons clenched tightly in hand.
Lucas made a gut call. He knew that every action he performed here would have a great impact on the flow of politics in the Imperium. If he stayed standing, he’d be seen as a figure competing against the Queen. If he kneeled, he’d be seen as a servant and loyal dog of the Queen. If he bowed his head, there might be no honor for him, but his loyalty would likely never be questioned. With less than a second to properly make his decision, Lucas decided to gamble on the father-murdering psychopath that had already proven herself valuable to him more than once. He knelt down while signaling for Viola and Bonnie to do the same.
“May the gods watch over our fallen King. Long live Queen Lilith,” one of the guards who had kneeled first declared loudly.
“Long live Queen Lilith!” the others–Lucas included, as he did his best to match the fervor of the guards–echoed in unison.
“You may rise,” Lilith responded, a look of joy on her face as she watched Lucas begin to stand up as well. Her expression, however, quickly flattened to become stoic and stern when her eyes fell on the nobles, none of whom had even bent so much as an inch of their knees. “And why, pray tell, have you not also kneeled to show fealty? Should I take it that everyone still standing has decided to protest my birthright?”
“Because no woman who has committed such a sin may be crowned Queen!” Edmund shouted, making him the first to denounce Lilith.
“She’s gonna kill him, isn’t she, Luc– I mean, boss?” Bonnie whispered to Lucas. She still hadn’t figured out that, in the silent chamber, her whispers were easily heard by others. “I mean, she’s gonna, like, straight up murder him, ain’t she? She’s going to–”
“Of course she will want to try murdering me!” Edmund responded to Bonnie’s less-than-subtle comments. “She has been cohorting with demons and barbarians, the wicked witch and incubus that have driven our pure angel to fratricide!” Edmund took a step back. “But that is not what we should allow! Guards, do not side with this bloodthirsty woman. She has just killed your lord and liege, and yet you kneel? Show dignity and bring your master’s murderer to justice!”
“Oh, come now,” Queen Lilith laughed. “Their master is still alive. I still stand before them, breathing. Why don’t you say what you really mean? That you want them to serve you and not the crown, foregoing their sacred duty and privilege to be the last line of defense for the noble monarchy of the Imperium.”
“I want them to do the right thing! Clearly, you are a foul stain upon a once-great lineage, and any self-respecting man could see that you must be put in chains and brought to heel before you destroy our beautiful empire.”
“How about, instead . . .” Lilith paused. “I’m going to have a little test here. Guards. Did you see who did or did not kneel? Did you see who capitulated and who stood unwavering?”
The guards nodded.
“Good. Then my first order as Queen is to bar the doors and kill all those who were standing,” she ordered.
“You! You can’t do this! Without us, without the aristocracy, how will you manage the lands?!” a noble that Lucas didn’t recognize demanded, quickly backing away.
“I’ll kneel! I’ll kneel! Just spare my son!” another one said as he crawled onto the ground. “I didn’t know better, Queen. Just spare my child!”
“This goes against the law! You won’t get away with this!” one of the other nobles cried out. One by one, they began to either beg her not to follow through, argue against the reason in her action, or deny her authority to command it. The only one who wasn’t arguing anymore was Edmund, who had bolted out of sight as fast as his two legs could carry him.
“Your Majesty,” Lucas said after a moment’s thought as he dusted off his knees and cracked his neck. “If you could, please spare my brother, Rowland, and his woman, Dennings. If they did not kneel, it is because they are . . . a little slow. Those two and their grandmother are innocent of these courtly schemes.”
Lilith’s beautiful smiling face returned as she nodded. “I understand,” she said before turning to the guards who were standing in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do. They had likely never received the order to kill anyone of higher birth, much less nearly everyone of such standing. “You heard the great hero of the people. Spare the boy, his woman, and that elderly mother, and then take the lives of everyone else. They are traitors to the crown. I expect you to carry out the Queen’s orders posthaste.”
In the next moment, it felt like hell broke loose within the court for all the nobles. The guards moved at lightning speeds that made Lucas doubt whether he could take more than one of them on at a time even if he had his staff in hand and had prepared for the fight. They were, without a doubt, boss-level NPCs, and he was gladdened by the fact that they were on his side.
The nobles they slaughtered weren’t without talent. Like Dennings and Rowland, who had served as the final fight of a dungeon back on Hesse, each of them displayed unique and interesting moves. Nevertheless, in the end, those moves did them little good against the quick, precise cuts of the royal guards’ swords. No matter how fancy their abilities, they all fell like wheat to a farmer’s sickle as the verbally vicious court turned truly deadly.
No wonder Lilith was so strong. She was a boss. Not just any boss, but the boss of an entire kingdom. As the head of the Imperium, she’s the one that someone would fight if they wanted to raid the entire Human city, Lucas thought, piecing together all his memories of her in action. He had always thought he couldn’t see the full depth of her in-game abilities, and now he knew it for certain.
“Is this not the most beautiful coronation?” Lilith asked, her jubilance still outshining her dangerous disposition as she walked forward to Lucas. “I had always dreamed of what my crowning day would look like, but never did I imagine it would be such a delicious sight–a feast for the eyes and crows alike.”
“Did you plan your affection for me to anger your father?” Lucas asked as he studied her face.
“No, I’ve known you were the one from the time I heard of your adventures in Hesse,” she answered. “That was just a happy coincidence, was it not? Who would have thought that father’s ire at the prospect of a young man bedding his daughter would leave an entire kingdom vulnerable. Quite amusing, really.”
“Wait, if you like him, like, ‘like’ him like him,” Bonnie began, staring at Lilith in slack-jawed confusion, “then . . . how can you be okay with him bedding so many women? How can you get over the fact the guy you like, the guy you”–she hesitated for a second–“just killed your father for, has so easily shared himself with so many other girls . . . as if you’re nothing more than a placeholder?” Bonnie asked. “Wouldn’t . . . Wouldn’t that hurt? Doesn’t it hurt a little . . .?” She gulped audibly.
“Well, while I do not share his infatuation for carnal indulgences, preferring instead to forego that entire subject whenever possible, it’s an easily remedied issue, is it not?” She was speaking to Bonnie with the voice an adult might use when explaining something to a child. Turning to Lucas, she said, “You can have your harem, and I will have my general. Your greatness will be a beacon of hope for a lost and dying empire, and I will make sure you get there. The only thing I ask of you is to remain forever a loyal subject of the Imperium.”
Lucas’s jaw almost fell off as he heard her talk. This was practically a proposal, and one it didn’t seem he had the option of ignoring. He had already bent the knee, hoping to forward his questline and Reputation within the city, but now he was stuck in a position that seemed to directly pit his new relationship with Liu against his dreams of villainy in the city. It wasn’t a hard call for him to make, granted, as he would always pick Liu over a game. The game was here just to help him enjoy his free time, but Liu was the person he wanted to spend his free time with most.
“I don’t think I’ll be needing harems or parties like the other night ever again,” Lucas finally said, leaving the meaning of his words ambiguous as he returned her expectant smile.
“That is . . . more than I was expecting to hear,” Lilith responded. “And it gladdens me. I look forward to regaining the glory of our empire together with you.”
“Long live Queen Lilith,” Lucas said, feeling those words at this moment were particularly apt. As he said them, he heard the guards and his own entourage echo them as well. “Long live Queen Lilith.”